Great Composers-Tchaikovsky/Puccini/Mahler (1997)

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Released 15-Apr-2002

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Music Booklet
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 1997
Running Time 177:03
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (92:10) Cast & Crew
Start Up Language Select Then Menu
Region Coding 2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Simon Broughton
Chris Hunt
Kriss Rusmanis

Warner Vision
Starring Kenneth Branagh
Case Amaray-Transparent
RPI $34.95 Music Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Giacomo Puccini
Gustav Mahler

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 (384Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits Yes, closing titles for Tchaikovsky over video

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    This is the third and last instalment of the excellent BBC documentary series on Great Composers to be released on DVD, featuring Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Giacomo Puccini and Gustav Mahler. Other composers featured in the series include Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner.

    Each programme is just under 60 minutes in length and is narrated by Kenneth Branagh. Each examines the life and times of the composer, where he (there are no female composers featured in this series) was born, lived and worked, analyses key compositions and offers commentary as well as performance excerpts from some of the most distinguished musicians in the classical music world who have performed (or indeed in some cases associated with) the works of the composer.

    In general, the producers have selected leading interpreters of the composers' works to either perform excerpts or to provide comments in the programme. It's a pity that they have not captioned the names of the musicians interviewed on the programme - fortunately full credits for the contributors are provided in the accompanying booklet.

    If you have purchased the other two DVDs in this set of three, you may be tempted to ask: Is that all? What about all the other famous composers? What about modern composers, don't they count? Who chose these seven anyway?

    Series Executive Producer Kriss Rusmanis explains in an article that it was a combination of several factors - a limited budget, to open up the possibility of a continuing series featuring additional composers (which has yet to happen), the desire to only include composers with a substantial body of work in the main international repertoire of chamber, operatic and symphonic music, and finally a desire to select one composer from each epoch in musical history so that the series as a whole tells a kind of story of how music changed and developed through different ages. The composers chosen represent the following:

Programme 1: Tchaikovsky

    By now, I've learnt to anticipate the quirky openings of each programme in this series, and this one is no exception. The opening features a female tram driver called Valentina who just happens to be a fan of Tchaikovsky driving a tram out of the yard onto the streets of St. Petersburg. We then get a number of commentators exclaiming how lyrical, romantic and deeply emotional his music is - appealing to the heart rather than the mind.

    We are taken on a tour of Tchaikovsky's last home (where he spent the last 18 months of his life) on the outskirts of Klin (about 85km from Moscow) which has been lovingly preserved in the state it was in when he died in 1893. We are then taken to his birthplace in the town of Votkinsk (1000 km from Moscow) and a tour of his parent's house including a demonstration of the Orchestrion (a sophisticated barrel organ) belonging to the family.

    We then trace Tchaikovsky's early childhood at the School of Jurisprudence and later at the Conservatoire of Music, teaching at the Moscow Conservatoire (renamed Tchaikovsky Conservatoire in 1940). The programme also touches on Tchaikovsky's homosexuality. Continuing the grand tour, we also get to see the Maryinsky Opera House where five of his ten operas were premiered as well as Sleeping Beauty. Even bits of New York City are shown, to accompany commentary of Tchaikovsky's tour of America in 1850.

    The two women of Tchaikovsky's life are also covered - Nadezhda von Meck, with whom he maintained a platonic letter-writing relationship, and Antonina Milyukova, who he actually married (for a disastrous three months). I like the way the programme links his most well-known works with events in his personal life. The programme ends with the question of whether he died from cholera or by committing suicide.

    Musical analyses include the Characteristic Dances, Piano Concerto No. 1, Swan Lake, Evgeny Onegin, Symphony No. 4, Violin Concerto, Queen of Spades, and the Pathetique Symphony (No. 6).

    Musical excerpts featured include (with most of the symphonic/orchestral performances by Yuri Temirkanov conducting the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra):

    Contributors include:

Programme 2: Puccini

    Don't be surprised (or think you've switched on the television by mistake) when you see soccer players on the screen - the triumphant aria from Puccini's last opera, Turandot - Nessun Dorma - was the official theme song for the 1990 Soccer World Cup.

    Puccini was born in 1858 near a lake in a small town called Lucca. The programme traces his childhood and early influences - including walking 20 km to hear Verdi's Aida being performed in the nearby town of Pisa. He then studied composition at the Milan Conservatory and the opening of his final year composition - Capriccio Sinfonico - was later reused in the opera La Bohème.

    The programme traces through various places in Italy and we are guided by a number of interviewees 'on location' - including Simon Callow ("Mr. Beebe" in Room With A View) - Lucca, Pisa, at the Castel Sant'Angelo (where Tosca hurled to her death), Puccini's villa at Torre del Lago, his final years at Viareggio and his death from throat cancer in Brussels.

    The programme happily moves from musical influences (Verdi, Wagner, Bizet, Debussy, Stravinsky) through to his Bohemian streak, his womanising, his pacifism, and even his love for toys and technology (stemming from his visit to America). Indeed, his womanising ("serial infidelities") was the constant bane of his wife Elvira Gemignani eventually leading to the "Doria Scandal" where a young woman who was wrongly accused by Elvira of having an affair with Puccini ended up committing suicide. The programme also interviews his neighbours in Torre del Lago and even his granddaughter Simonetta.

    Musical analyses include most of his operas, such as Le Villi, Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West, Il Tabarro and his final, unfinished, opera Turandot.

    Musical extracts (mostly performed by Richard Buckley and the BBC Philharmonic and featuring tenor José Cura) include:

    Contributors include:

Programme 3: Mahler

    After the controversial lifestyles of the previous conductors, Mahler's is pretty straightforward and even sound boring by comparison. The worst criticism that has been uttered of him is that he was a "self-obsessed megalomaniac", but then who isn't? :-)

    Mahler was born in Kaliste, Bohemia in what is now presumably part of the Czech Republic. His childhood was pretty tragic; six of his 14 siblings died when he was still quite young, and he became somewhat obsessed with the idea of death. His musical talent was revealed early as he used to join the marching soldiers and accompany the band on his accordion. He wrote his first composition (a polka) at the age of six.

    He wanted to be a composer, but had to work as an opera conductor to earn his living. He was really good at that, and eventually secured the prestigious position of Director of the Vienna State Opera, although he had to renounce Judaism and convert to Catholicism to be eligible. He married the beautiful Alma Schindler but their marriage ran into difficulties due to his frequent desire to be alone and his seeming disregard for his wife's feelings.

    Those who are familiar with the Monty Python sketch about Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson will be delighted to learn about Mahler's "composing huts" - which are small buildings that Mahler purposely built to compose in. He ended up building no less than three huts in three different locations as the family moved

    Musical analyses concentrate on his symphonies, which were larger and more complex that any written before, as well as his song cycles, including Klagende Lied, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Kindertotenlieder. Also discussed was Das Lied von der Erde, which is more than a symphony or a song cycle - it's the synthesis of both. The story has it that Mahler was obsessed with his own death after writing the 8th Symphony, based on the fact that Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner all died after writing nine symphonies. Half-way through writing what was originally intended to be his ninth symphony he changed his mind and called it a song cycle instead. However, it was symphonic in many ways. Then, when he did write a ninth symphony, he felt he had cheated fate because it was really his tenth. Well, Fate doesn't get cheated so easily. Mahler died in the middle of composing his tenth symphony.

    One interesting but sad tidbit: Sir Georg Solti, whose performances are featured in this programme and was closely involved in the making of the programme, died whilst the filming was in progress.

    Musical excerpts featured include (with most of the symphonic/orchestral performances by the late Sir Georg Solti conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra ):

    Contributors include:

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Transfer Quality


    This is a full frame transfer in the original made-for-TV aspect ratio of 1.33:1.

    The transfer, from an interlaced analogue video source, is quite good, with vibrant colours, very good black levels, strong levels of detail, and is relatively clean of artefacts. There are numerous instances in the programmes which contains close-ups of musical scores, handwriting and printed material, and I had no problems reading them.

    The video source for the programmes are in pristine condition, for I did not notice any instances of analogue video glitches. Interlaced video artefacts such as shimmering are present (for example 63:37-63:44) as are aliasing and moire effects (for example around 3:25-3:38 on Yuri Temirkanov's jacket). Sometimes, the video itself was sourced from film - the mountainside scenery fly-by had a black film mark around 133:57.

    Compression artefacts are few and far in between, apart from very occasional Gibb's effect ringing. The footage of Swan Lake around 23:18-24:18 features pixelization, but I suspect this is due to the source video being zoomed rather than a compression artefact.

    The three programmes on this disc are split across a single sided dual layered disc (RSDL). The layer change occurs about midway in the Puccini programme at 92:10 - and is reasonably well placed.

    This disc comes with a number of subtitle tracks. I turned on the English subtitle tracks briefly. It would be fair to say that the subtitle tracks paraphrase and simplify the dialogue rather than transcribing it word for word. The subtitle track came in particularly useful in the Tchaikovsky programme as some of the commentators spoke in Russian.

    Interestingly, the segment featuring Colin Matthews looks like it might have been taken from another programme because his name is captioned at the bottom (burned into the video stream) but none of the other speakers are captioned.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    Unlike the first disc which had five audio tracks in five languages, there is only one audio track on this disc, English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s).

    The Dolby Digital 2.0 transfer is of extremely good quality and sounds very full-bodied, rich, full range and well balanced. I can even hear a difference in hiss as different audio segments are mixed in and out.

    There is an interesting scene around 16:35-16:54 where Evgeny Kissin plays the opening chords of Piano Concerto No. 1 on a number of pianos, and the audio track clearly tracks the relative positions of the pianos on the screen.

    As is typical for a BBC documentary, the enunciation of the main presenter is excellent and in general the producers have chosen contributors who can articulate well. I did not detect any audio synchronisation issues with the disc.

    The musical excerpts come across very well on the disc.

    Obviously, there is no rear surround, centre channel or subwoofer activity in the audio track.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    There are no extras on the disc itself, but there is an accompanying 16-page booklet.


    We are allowed to select from 5 languages for the menus, but the menus themselves are pretty basic.


    This is a 16-page booklet that provides chapter listings (in 5 languages) and recording recommendations. The chapter listings also provide details on the musical excerpts included in the programmes and credit the contributors by name.

    The recording recommendations mainly direct you to full versions of the music played in the programme, but unfortunately in most cases performed by musicians other than those appearing in the programme. This is because Warner of course wanted to recommend recordings from its own catalogue rather than its competitors, which is a pity. Although the recordings recommended by Warner are decent, I would have preferred that the booklet actually list recordings made by artists appearing in the programme.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The disc is multi-region coded for Regions 2-6, and does not appear to be available in Region 1.


    Great Composers: Tchaikovsky, Puccini & Mahler is the third and final DVD instalment in a BBC documentary series on the life and music of some of the greatest music composers of all time. It is presented on a DVD with excellent video and audio transfers. The extras are limited to a booklet.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Christine Tham (read my biography)
Saturday, June 29, 2002
Review Equipment
DVDSony DVP-NS905V, using Component output
DisplaySony VPL-VW11HT LCD Projector, ScreenTechnics 16x9 matte white screen (254cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials/Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials/Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationDenon AVR-3300
SpeakersFront and rears: B&W CDM7NT; centre: B&W CDMCNT; subwoofer: B&W ASW2500

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